An out-of-control spent rocket launched by China in recent days is racing back towards Earth and what’s left could strike somewhere within the United States this weekend. This is the third time in as many years China has launched a massive rocket into space with no plans to safely return it to Earth. The ten-story tall 20-ton rocket is expected to crash sometime this weekend, however experts aren’t sure where exactly it will impact or what will be left of the rocket when it does. As the rocket re-enters the atmosphere, parts of it will break off and burn up but due to its huge size, some dangerously large pieces are likely to reach the surface; experts believe at least 20-40% of the rocket will impact Earth. Because the rocket is out of control and moving erratically, experts aren’t sure exactly where it will land until an hour or two before it does; because it’s moving at speeds of over 15,000 mph, it may be too late to warn people of the impending impact zone.
Despite international condemnation of China’s last out-of-control rocket which struck Earth in May of last year, which followed another similar impact in May of 2020, China has not employed any new technology or safety mechanisms to steer the rocket back to Earth safely, as SpaceX rockets do, or deposit rockets in the South Pacific ocean far from any land mass or ocean shipping routes, as what most rocket launchers around the world do when sending satellites into space.
On July 24, China launched their massive Long March 5B rocket to deliver the Wentian experiment module to China’s Tiangong Space Station. Unable to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) due to restrictions imposed by the United States, China has embarked on building their own called “Tiangong.” Construction on the space station is due to be completed later this year after another scheduled October launch of a Long March 5B rocket brings the Mengtian module to space. With the ISS due to be retired in the coming years, Tiangong may remain as the only working space station in Earth’s orbit.
The Long March 5, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, roughly matches the capabilities of American rockets like the ULA Delta IV Heavy and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The massive rocket that was used to bring the GOES-R and GOES-S weather satellites to orbit was a ULA Atlas V; despite its size, it’s considerably smaller and less powerful than the Long March 5. The Long March 5 core stage has roughly 7x the mass of the Space X Falcon 9 second stage. The Long March 5b launches from a spaceport on Hainan Island in southeastern China.
The Wenchang facility on Hainan Island allows launch vehicles to soar over the South China Sea; previous launches lifted-off from inland launch facilities, forcing used rocket stages to fall onto land. Previous rocket stages have crashed into people’s homes in China. In the United States, such launches lift-off from launchpads near water, allowing spent rocket stages to tumble back to the ocean. Prior to such an event, NASA in partnership with local government agencies, put the projected splash-down area as a “no-fly” / “no-boat” area until the debris is safely down.
However, as was the case when China launched space station components in 2020 and 2021, it appears the spent Long March 5 main stage will tumble back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, potentially threatening some location on the planet with an impact. While experts believe much of the large spent rocket stage will burn-up upon re-entry, it is possible some parts of it, such as its massive motors, may survive re-entry and impact Earth. The spent rocket stage is roughly 100 feet long by 16 feet wide. This is approximately the same size as 4 school buses, parked 2 by 2.
In 2020, Aerospace Corporation tracked the falling space debris. In March of 2018, Aerospace also tracked a falling Chinese space station. It eventually crashing into the ocean. It is too soon to know with precision where and when this giant rocket or its remnants will crash. Aerospace Corporation operates the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.
The U.S. Space Force is tracking the falling Chinese rocket. Created in December 2019, the U.S. Space Force has been busy. If an entity in space or tumbling from space were to threaten U.S. interests, they’d work in partnership with other military branches and government teams to respond to the threat.
Because there is more ocean water and uninhabited land areas than there are inhabited ones, odds favor that this out-of-control rocket will impact an uninhabited area. However, it is too soon to say with certainty if that will happen. In last year’s incident, the out of control rocket traveled directly over Los Angeles and New York City and crashed 15 minutes later near the west coast of Africa. Debris was reported on the ground in the village of Mahounou in Cote d’Ivoire on the Ivory Coast. Had the re-entry occurred 15 minutes earlier, New York City could have seen considerable damage or loss of life from the impact of the fast-moving debris.
In the meantime, Aerospace Corporation and others will continue to track and forecast where impact is likely to occur. “There are a variety of ways to predict the reentry, and models differ,” said Aerospace Corporation’s Marlon Sorge, who is a technical fellow for Space Innovation Directorate in an online question and answer session. “The predictions are highly sensitive to the modeling assumptions including how we think the sun will affect the earth’s atmosphere which affects how quickly an object falls out of orbit. We and the U.S. Space Force use slightly different models so we get different answers. These different answers tend to fall within each other’s uncertainties, so just because they are not identical does not mean they don’t agree. We are constantly refining our models and are satisfied with our approach in the face of the unknowns.”
Based on the latest Aerospace Corporation forecast, the most likely time for impact will be sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning this weekend.